Holy Week

Emma

It happened 2,000 years ago, and it happens today.

Someone experiences suffering.

They love their neighbors as they love themselves.

They have a dream that love can change the world.

They heal. They teach. They unite. They march.

They speak truth to power.

They inspire.

But they also disturb.

Pushback comes.

Betrayal. Denial. Lies. Mocking. Humiliation. Degradation. Dehumanization.

Some of it comes in the name of God.

The good news is that Easter is coming.

Hope is rising.

And love will win.

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The God Who Rides a Donkey

March for our lives.jpg

John 12:12-16 NRSV

I have a confession to make. I got more than a little down dejected last Sunday morning. Looking at the empty pews last when so many were out on Spring Break got me thinking: “What in the world are we going to do to get more people to come to church here?”

And planning for this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem also got me thinking: “Everybody loves a parade!” Maybe that is what our church needs. A good parade!

Now, some may argue that many churches these days already look like some type of parade.

Some churches look like a parade they have down in Southern Louisiana where they throw candy, beads all sorts of fun things from the float. People go to parades like some people go to church: to get something, to receive something, to catch something that is thrown their way, something sweet, pleasant, something that is going to make their lives better, make their family happier.

Then there are other parades. Although no candy is thrown, these parades just have a way of making us feel good. They put us in a good mood. Nothing gets some of us in the Holiday Spirit like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

There are people who go to church to get in a particular mood. They go to hear something that moves them, stirs them. They go to see something that wows them. They go to ooh and ahh. They go to get a good feeling that will hopefully last them the rest of the week.

Then there are military parades. They show off a well-trained, well-conditioned army marching in step with tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads to show the world who’s the strongest and the greatest, whose citizens are the safest, most protected, most secure.

Just like some people go to church to get something that makes them feel a little more superior than others. They also go to be protected from all sorts of evil. And they go for some eternal security.

If we pay attention, we discover that each of these parades has the same drum beat. It is a beat of pleasure. It is a beat of comfort. It is a beat that is easy for us to march to. It is a beat of self-preservation, but also self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. It is a beat of pride. It is a beat of greed. It is beat that entices us.

And, although we know this beat has an innate tendency to be depraved, although we know this beat often stirs the darker, most selfish places within us, we love this beat. We live by this beat. We work by this beat. We relate to others by this beat. We vote by this beat. We even worship by this beat.

But on this Palm Sunday, we are reminded that there is another kind of parade. And it’s a parade that marches to the beat of very different drum.

Nearing the end of his life, Jesus, the savior of the world, paraded into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion, but on a borrowed donkey; not with a well-trained, well-conditioned army, but with a gang of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

The late Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors and pastors once said, that to much of the world, this parade looked “downright stupid.”

For Jesus marched to a difficult beat that pushes against the status quo, that pulls us out of our comfort zones, that challenges our instincts.

While others marched to the beat of a self-serving, self-seeking, self-preserving drum, Jesus rode a donkey and marched to the beat of a self-giving, self-denying drum.

As the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! God save us!” Jesus answered their cries by marching to a beat of sacrifice. Although he knew he would be killed for it, Jesus kept marching forward with a scandalous love and an offensive grace.

Yes, bouncing in on the back of a donkey, Jesus marched to the beat of a very different drum.

During the Fort Smith Marathon, several of you made and held up signs to cheer on the runners who made their way down Free Ferry. Some of your signs were very creative. One read: “You Are Running Better than the Government.” One of my favorite signs that I see people holding in nearly every marathon reads: “Worst Parade Ever.”

If we are honest, this is our initial reaction to this Palm Sunday parade. The people cry “Hosanna! God save us!” And here comes God, riding in on a donkey!

This is not a parade of pride. It is a parade of humility.

It is not a parade that entertains. It is a parade that suffers.

It is not a parade of pleasure. It is parade of agony.

It is not a parade of self-preservation. It is a parade of self-expenditure.

And although the route of this parade brought Jesus to the capital city, this parade was not good news for the rich and the powerful, the self-important and the self-sufficient.

This parade was good news for the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners—for all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

This march was good news those who had been left out and left behind: For sinners condemned by bad religion; For women, children and minorities silenced by the privileged; For the broken cast aside by society; For all those who are unable to march: the blind, the disabled, the mentally ill, the wounded and the sick. For all who realize that they need salvation.

I have heard it said that what America needs right now is a good parade. On this Palm Sunday, I agree.

However, we do not need a parade led by tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads asserting that military might is the answer to our problems.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey asserting that selfless love is the answer.

We need a parade that emphasizes that what this nation needs is more humility and less arrogance, more respect and less name-calling, more empathy and less callousness, more acts of kindness and less talk of preemptive military strikes.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey showcasing not those who sit in the highest seats of power, but school children who just want to be safe, teachers who just want a living wage, women who just want to be heard, persons with different abilities who just want to be included, the sick who just want to see a doctor, the poor who just want to eat, the oppressed who just want to be free.

We need a parade led by our savior who rides a donkey!

And if we are honest, we would confess that this parade is not easy for us accept. Look at verse 16: His disciples did not understand these things…” The truth is: neither can we.

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes: “We wanted Jesus to come to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to march up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine. We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday from noon until three, with hardly a word.”

Jesus didn’t come fixing all of our problems. He didn’t come offering us health and wealth, an easy life or even a better life. He didn’t come showering us with treats to make us feel good good. And he didn’t come showing us his power and might. Jesus came riding a donkey.

For God so loved the world that God came and emptied God’s self. God came and poured God’s self out. God came and bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in the way that we wanted—but, the good news is, God came in the way that we need for life—abundant and eternal.

Those great theologians of our time had it right: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might just find, you get what you need.”

I may want these pews to be full every Sunday morning, even during Spring Break. However, for us to be the church that God is calling us to be, worship service attendance on Sunday morning will never be as important as how we are worshiping God with our selfless service the rest of the week. How we march through these doors today is not nearly as important as how we are marching outside of these doors tomorrow.

To determine if we are being the church God is calling us to be, what we need is a new gauge. We need a new benchmark to determine if we are marching to the beat of a different drum, a new indicator to tell if we are marching in the steps of the One who rides a donkey. For it’s not how many of us are coming to church that is important to this One. It’s what we are doing in the world to be the church.

Spending an entire day with our youth, teaching them how to use power equipment for a mission trip that you plan to lead them on this summer, is a sign that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Making sandwiches for college students who are building affordable housing for the working poor is evidence that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Selflessly giving our time, our resources, and ourselves marching downtown to feed the hungry; marching across town to sit down and share a meal with a group of another faith; marching to the capital to stand up against gun violence, to cry out against injustice and corruption, to speak up for the care of God’s creation; marching down the road to extend mercy to someone who is broken; marching across a room to perform a small act of kindness to a stranger, marching out in the darkness to be a friend to someone who is afraid, marching everywhere we go to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves—

These are the markers that we are the church God is calling us to be.

May God give us the grace and the strength to keep marching forward to the beat of a different drum, to keep following in the steps of the One who rides a donkey; to keep marching a march of suffering, but also a march of joy; a march of sacrifice, but also a march of hope; a march to lose our lives, but also a march for our lives.

Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, as you entered Jerusalem, you did not look like the Messiah that we expected, bouncing in on the back of that donkey,

Lord Jesus, when you stood before Pilate and his inquisition, you did not sound like the Lord of Lords.

Lord Jesus, as you hung in agony on the cross, you did not look like the Kings of Kings.

Lord Jesus, help us to see you, even when you do not look like the God we wanted.  And make us realize through your strong presence that who you are is all we will ever need, now and forever.  Amen.

INVITATION TO CHRIST’S TABLE

Come. Come and find your place at this table.

All are invited, and all means all.

Come and share a very humble meal that in the eyes of many looks downright stupid.

But this is the feast God imagines –

where peace and salvation can be experienced in a simple loaf of bread and in one cup.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

John 12:1-8 NRSV

Every service of worship should begin with a warning. Instead of a welcome and a few announcements before the hand bell choir, the congregation needs to be forewarned, put on alert, and be advised to proceed with caution.

Because every time invoke the presence of the living Christ to join us around this table, things are likely to get little crazy! When Jesus comes to the table, things are going to get out of hand. Things with happen that will surprise, even shock us. Things will mysteriously break open, break loose, change, shift, and spill out.  Because when Jesus comes to the table, things are not always as we expect them to be, nor even as they appear to be. When Jesus is at the table, there is always more going on than meets the eye.

To illustrate what I am trying to say, allow me to share a story.

Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. There has always been a sense of foreboding, of gathering gloom throughout much of his ministry. And now there is a sense that things are coming to a head. The enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who already had everything in life figured out, those who believed they had all the answers, those for whom life holds no mystery, those who have been lurking in the shadows plotting against him, may be at last ready to entrap him.

But before all of that, before Jesus takes his disciples on that final journey into Jerusalem, they gather with Jesus’ good friends, Mary and Martha, for dinner. And oh-my-word, what dinner it was!

First of all, John opens the story by saying, “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”

Now, can you imagine standing behind your chair at the table getting ready to sit down when someone introduces you to the one standing at the head of the table by saying, “You know our host, Mr. Lazarus, don’t you?  Yeah, we didn’t know he was going to be able to graciously host this lovely dinner party tonight, because, a couple of weeks ago he was very ill.  And about a week ago, he was dead and buried.”

As you pull out your chair to sit down at the table, you’re thinking: “This is going to be one crazy night!”

Well, not long after the cornbread and butter made its way around the table, Mary comes in acting as if she has already had too much wine and falls all over Jesus! She shocks everyone when she lets down her hair right there at the dinner table!  She then takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, gets down on her knees under the table and anoints the feet of Jesus! Pouring the perfume all over his feet and wiping his feet with her hair!

This is certainly not a scene one would expect at the dining room table, especially with a young rabbi over as the guest!  The fragrance, almost overbearing, fills the entire house. So much commotion. Perfume and hair everywhere!  At the dinner table!

John mentions only one other guest at the table that evening.  He is one of Jesus’ students. He is the follower whose reputation precedes him: Judas Iscariot—The very disciple who will betray Jesus just a few days later. Now, let me ask you this, can things possibly get any more crazy?

Shaking his head at Mary making a spectacle of herself under the table, Judas, being the good committed liberal that he is, asks a great ethical question. “Why wasn’t this expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor rather than wasting it by pouring it all over Jesus’ feet?”

It is rather shocking that it comes from Judas, for it’s the type of question that one can easily imagine Jesus asking, especially knowing how he feels about the poor.

Well, surprise, surprise, Judas! You have been paying attention! You didn’t sleep through all of Jesus’ sermons! Way to go, Judas!”

But then, just when you thought things could not become more shocking, comes the surprise of all surprises: Jesus responds: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.”   Whaaaaaaaaaat?????  Why would Jesus say something like that?

But then we begin to get it. When Jesus first mentioned burial, at first we thought he was talking about Lazarus. But this is not about Lazarus. And this is not about the poor. This is about what is going to take place in Jerusalem during the next couple of weeks.

This meal that should have been a happy gathering of good friends enjoying a lovely dinner was actually a prelude to the crucifixion. Jesus is at the table with both friends and betrayer. Sweet smelling perfume is not the only thing in the air. Disloyalty and disappointment and death are also in the air on this night.

And Jesus still eats and drinks with them. Love, grace and mercy is also in the air on this night.

What a night this has turned out to be—a night of seemingly endless surprises.  So much more is going on beyond the senses.

This is how it always is with Jesus. With Jesus, things are never as they appear to be. With Jesus, there is always more meaning beyond the moment, more reality beyond the senses. The truth is that this very morning, more is going on here in this place than we can possibly imagine.  There is more happening here than the saying of a few prayers, the singing of a few hymns and the mere preaching of a simple sermon.

Whether it be at the table with his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus or here in this place, at the table with us, Jesus, the incarnate deity, is present, communing with us, giving himself to us, revealing himself for us.  And as fragmented human beings, we can always count on being surprised and even shocked.

So, this morning, I am asking you to hold on to your pews, for anytime Christ comes among us, things are liable to break out, break open, change, shift and spill out.

To our absolute amazement a brief moment in prayer gives us strength that is beyond measure.

To our complete bewilderment, the singing of a hymn gives us peace outside all our expectations.

To our pure wonderment, each Sunday morning, gathering around this table with Jesus, some of us friends of Jesus, all of us his betrayers, envelops us with grace which is greater that our understanding.

To our utter befuddlement, a tiny cracker and sip of juice fills us with immeasurable sustenance, giving a sacrificial offering fills us with untold riches.

And it is not only during this service of worship that things are breaking open, breaking loose and spilling out. Because the good news is, if we open our eyes and our hearts to it, we can experience the Spirit of Christ everywhere.

We visit a sick man, dying in the hospital, and we are amazed to discover that he is experiencing more life than the healthiest person we know.

We include someone who is usually excluded, and we are stunned when we realize that we are the ones who have been included in something larger than we could imagine.

A child speaks to us, and we are taken aback when she imparts wisdom deeper than any great philosopher.

We grant unearned, undeserved forgiveness to others and we are astounded to find ourselves forgiven.

We offer a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek (physical, temporal expressions of love), and are astonished when it is revealed that those expressions have spiritual, eternal significance.

And here, right now, because a church in Western Arkansas has made the commitment to invoke the presence of the living Christ to the table every week, because we’ve have made the decision to not only believe in Jesus, worship Jesus, but to actually follow Jesus, to welcome others like Jesus, to serve like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus and to love like Jesus, you know what’s gonna happen!

Like perfume and hair everywhere, the Holy Spirit of God is going to break open, break loose and spill out!

This morning, when you got up, you thought you chose to get dressed and come to church, but you are now stunned to discover that some mysterious Divine Other has chosen you.

You thought that you had things all figured out, had all the answers, knew what was going on and what was not going on in this world, only to be flabbergasted to discover that you did not have a clue.

This morning, you thought you were going to go to church, go through the motions, and go back home as complacent as ever, but to your startling surprise it has been revealed that you have been summoned, you have been called to do something that is bigger than you and to go on a journey that is far from home.

And here is the real shock: in saying yes to this summons, saying yes to giving your life away and to leaving a place of comfort and security, you have never felt more alive, more you, and more at home.

This morning, you thought you were going to come to this place and see a few friends, but you were dumbfounded when you came and saw Jesus.

And Jesus is not finished!  No, he’s not finished with you yet. Some of you have tuned out everything that has been going on and is going on here. You think you are going to leave here in a few minutes to go have a little dinner, unsurprised, untouched, unmoved, unchanged. Well, guess who’s coming to dinner?  I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Sidney Poitier.

Let us pray together.

O God, surprise us, overwhelm us, bowl us over, render us speechless, take our breath away, with your love and your grace, your mystery and your glory, as we follow you wherever you may lead us.

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

As you prepare share this meal from this table, know that you have been forewarned. You have been put on alert. You have been advised to proceed with caution. You will be surprised to discover that objects in the rear view mirror may not be what they appear to be. And you will be shocked to discover that the road ahead may not go where you expect it to go, or even where you may want it to go. So, remain pliable, keep your heart completely accessible and your life totally available. And may the ever present God, the unpredictable Christ, and the Holy Spirit like hair and perfume everywhere, surprise, shock and startle you from all immovable complacency.